For starters, it is a real thing. And, if you’ve ever said or thought the words, “I’m fooling everyone. I’m a total fraud,” you already have some experience with it.
And you’re not alone. It’s estimated that 70 percent of people will experience at least one episode of imposter syndrome during their lifetime. Despite its ubiquity, little is known about the phenomenon. First brought to light in 1978, imposter syndrome isn’t recognized as a disorder in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. So, what is it exactly?
“I would describe it as a series of experiences,” says Audrey Ervin, psychologist and academic director of the graduate program in counseling psychology at Delaware Valley University. “It’s characterized by chronic feelings of inadequacy, incompetence, and fraudulence despite objective success. It’s hard to internalize success and genuinely hold the belief that you’re competent and capable.”
While entering a new role might trigger an episode, imposter syndrome has been shown to affect everyone, from the most successful CEO to a college freshman. In fact, actual ability and achievements have no bearing. Driven personalities and those at the top of the ladder are just as vulnerable to imposter syndrome–if not more.
Even Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook, has struggled with imposter syndrome, writing “Every time I was called on in class, I was sure that I was about to embarrass myself. Every time I took a test, I was sure that it had gone badly. And every time I didn’t embarrass myself—or even excelled—I believed that I had fooled everyone yet again. One day soon, the jig would be up.”
Difference Between Imposter Syndrome and Self Doubt
There’s nothing wrong with occasional self-doubt. The key, most experts agree, is frequency. Most people feel like an imposter at some point in their lives, especially in intimidating scenarios, whether they’re on a blind date, at a new job, or speaking in front of a large crowd.
“Adolescence, for example, is a time characterized by self-doubt,” says Ervin. “The important questions to ask yourself are: Is your self-doubt developmentally appropriate? Is it a persistent, nagging, ongoing experience? Or is it a temporary, situational experience?”
What Are the Signs Of Imposter Syndrome?
So how do you know you have imposter syndrome? While there’s no official diagnosis, here’s a checklist of common indicators.
- Imposter syndrome is frequently associated with trait anxiety, generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), and social anxiety disorder. “Clinically, I don’t see a lot of people with imposter syndrome who don’t have anxiety,” says Ervin.
- Pervasive self-doubt characterizes your past, current, and future experiences.
- You experience a persistent fear that you’re going to be “found out” or discovered as a fraud, in spite of objective successes.
- When you achieve success, you attribute it to luck or describe it as a fluke. You might feel relief or even distress in place of happiness and pride.
- You look for validation in authority figures—such as a boss or family member—and give them the power to dictate whether you are successful or not.
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What Causes Imposter Syndrome?
Imposter syndrome is likely the result of multiple factors, including personality traits (such as perfectionism) and family background. One theory is that imposter syndrome is rooted in families that value achievement above all else. Another research article claims that it begins when families are characterized by low support and high conflict. Ervin also suggests that we might look to our culture as a whole for answers.
“While I’m painting in huge strokes, the United States tends to have a more individualistic, as opposed to collectivist, culture. There’s often pressure to be successful and to achieve, as opposed to just be. I think this can facilitate a pressure cooker for people. You certainly can’t extract people from the culture that they live in and the expectations that it creates.”
Who Is Susceptible To Imposter Syndrome?
Just about everyone. We may associate women with imposter syndrome (many high-profile women including Tina Fey and Michelle Obama have spoken out on the topic), but studies suggest that the phenomenon is experienced equally by both genders.
“Originally, the thought was that women experience it disproportionately,” says Ervin. “But the limited research we have does not substantiate that. Men experience imposter syndrome, but their expression of it may appear differently.” Due to gender norms and fear of backlash, men are possibly less likely to externalize their feelings.
While research is still very sparse, one group that does appear especially vulnerable to imposter syndrome are minorities. “Minority stress [chronically high levels of stress faced by members of stigmatized minority groups] can contribute to imposter syndrome,” says Ervin.
Coupled with a lack of representation and discrimination, the effects of imposter syndrome can feel nearly insurmountable. After all, how do you wrestle with your own self-doubt when society is also telling you that you don’t belong?
How to Deal with Imposter Syndrome
There’s no one easy treatment plan for imposter syndrome. Rather, moving past such continual feelings of inadequacy requires similarly persistent mindfulness and cognitive behavior strategies.
“The focus should be on encouraging folks to sit, self-reflect, and be mindful of their thinking,” says Ervin. A number of different tactics can be involved in this approach.
- Question yourself. Every time you have a negative thought about your abilities or wonder if you’re qualified for a job, pause and ask yourself: Is the thought actually (truly) accurate? Is this emotional experience real or am I responding based on other outside variables? Does this thought help or hinder me?
- Reframe your thinking. Ervin says it helps to be mindful of antecedents, beliefs, and emotions. You can use these categories to put your thoughts in perspective. For example, you might receive a raise, so you feel distress or guilt because you believe you didn’t deserve it. Go back and examine why you have this belief and examine if it’s valid.
- Embrace success. If you have imposter syndrome, it can be tempting to invalidate even the smallest win. Resist that urge by listing every success and allowing them to resonate emotionally. Over time, this practice will give you a realistic picture of your accomplishments and help affirm your self-worth.
- Talk it out. Whether it’s a mentor, friend, or therapist, talk to someone else about how you’re feeling. Getting an outside perspective can shake irrational beliefs and ground you in reality.
- Show self-compassion. Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT)—which helps people reflect on their feelings and foster more compassionate, constructive ways of relating to themselves—has become a popular approach to overcoming imposter syndrome.